Sam Gendel seems determined never to walk the same path twice. In little over a year’s time, the Los Angeles-based composer and multi-instrumentalist has released a sprawling collection of hybrid jazz and hip-hop experiments, an assemblage of plaintive Japanese-inspired fusion, and a cover album of molecularly disassembled R&B classics. In his quest to aggressively remake himself, Gendel has also become a prolific collaborator with musicians running the gamut from accomplished record producers to his partner’s 11-year-old sister. When Gendel works with others, it’s typically his creative vision that guides the project’s shape, but on his latest album, he’s surrendered to the imagination of his partner, visual artist and filmmaker Marcella Cytrynowicz.
Audiobook was devised as an audiovisual collaboration: Cytrynowicz drew the project’s illustrations while Gendel improvised alongside her in real time on a Suzuki Waraku III, a decades-old electronic koto instrument. Cytrynowicz’s art acts as a graphical score for his spontaneous compositions, lending them a scattered quality as Gendel’s eyes follow along the images’ labyrinthine contours. The basic building blocks of each piece are textural rather than musical. On the opening “AB,” a percussive puff skitters erratically over a swell of synthesizer, as if repeatedly slamming into a wall and rerouting its path. As it transitions into “CD,” the outline retains its shape but slowly expands as bite-sized blasts cut in. Each track is titled alphabetically in pairs from A to Z, and they flow as smoothly from one to the next as a memorized run through your ABC’s.
Cytrynowicz’s drawings, which have been compiled in a book accompanying the vinyl release, as well as a downloadable PDF and online multimedia presentation, make use of bold colors and tight curves, and Gendel leans into the elemental energies they evoke. You can almost feel the heat of his breath on “KL” as streams of air blown across his reed weave into the fabric of the track. “GH,” in contrast, is draped in muffled echo, as if the sound waves were traveling along the ocean floor. On “EF,” twinkling synth tones glint like beams of light hitting stalactites in an icy cavern. Plucky percussion and a noise like flowing liquid punctuate “QR,” bringing to mind a rushing white river. Gendel adds an additional dimension to his partner’s imaginary landscapes, lending them a powerful sense of place.
Some moments feel more underdeveloped. There are interesting wrinkles in the wobbly synth and washboard percussion of “WX,” but it never quite coalesces into the evocative imagery found elsewhere. “IJ,” a cover of saxophone virtuoso Wayne Shorter’s “Deluge,” strips the piece down to its essentials and leaves it barely recognizable. Gendel’s at his strongest when layering up melodic phrases and letting them play off one another, as on standout “UV.” He plays as if he’s trying to charm a snake, nimbly running up and down scales while a cavernous, shuffling beat keeps time. He paints expressive strokes with his synthesizer, matching the lively peaks and valleys of the artworks that Cytrynowicz was creating by his side. Gendel has long displayed a restlessness that can’t be contained within the constraints of conventional musical formats; led by Cytrynowicz, on Audiobook he extends his playing into new realms.
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